EDITOR’S NOTE: Nearly two decades ago, Stephen and Tricia Stringer became the first missionaries deployed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board for the particular task of Bible translation. The Stringers have devoted themselves to this task for 19 years, serving in West Africa, South Asia and now in England. Currently, they help to develop resources and strategies for taking Scripture to unreached people groups across the globe. Although other IMB missionaries also focus on Bible translation (including some translators with Missouri ties), the Stringers said the needs are “overwhelming.” They asked that Missouri Southern Baptists pray that God would call out more people to this ministry and to pray for God’s protection – since those involved in Bible translation often “endure particular spiritual opposition.” The following is from an exclusive Pathway interview with Stephen Stringer.
PATHWAY: When and how did you become interested in the ministry of Bible translation? Why are you passionate about it?
STRINGER: “Wow. That’s a long story. My wife was called to Bible translation when she was very young. I was still learning to tie my tennis shoes when she was planning her life as a Bible translator. We met in college. I had recently become a follower of Jesus. As I learned more about Bible translation, I was intrigued, but not convinced. We were in college shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and the former Soviet Union was opened to outsiders.
“I remember a friend of ours going on a short-term trip to Moscow to hand out Bibles. When she came back, she told us the story of standing on the street corner in the bitter cold handing out New Testaments to passers-by. One man dressed in tattered clothes came shuffling up to them. She handed him the book. When he realized what it was, he began taking his old coat off to give it to her in return for the book. She refused saying, ‘No. It’s free.’ He insisted, forcing the coat into her hands. She again refused, saying, ‘You don’t understand! This book is free. It costs nothing.’ The old man then put his hands into the pocket of the coat and produced two pages that had been folded and re-folded until it was falling apart. He carefully unfolded the pages and showed them to my friend, ‘No, you don’t understand.’ She and her translator then noticed that the pages were two pages from the Gospel of John. The man went on, ‘I have followed Jesus for 25 years, and this is all of God’s Word I have had. This costs something.’
“Hearing those words was the moment I knew that I would spend the rest of my life getting God’s Word into the hands of people who have never had it before.”
PATHWAY: How did you become involved in Bible translation overseas, and what have you learned about this ministry through the years?
STRINGER: “After college, we began the process of becoming Bible translators. Through a very long sequence of events that I will not bore you with here, we became the first Bible translators assigned by the International Mission Board. We worked in partnership with Wycliffe/SIL in a project in Benin, West Africa. It was during that time that we learned that the task of Bible translation was changing. It is much more than simply sitting in an office for a number of years, coming out of that office, holding up a book and everyone becoming believers. It is really a lot more about equipping and empowering local people to be the translator of the Bible into their own language. It is really more about Scripture Access and Scripture Engagement than it is about simply translation. We have learned that it is often more important to develop Scripture resources that work within a comprehensive church planting/church strengthening strategy. Because of this, we consider the development of Bible stories, songs, and Scripture portions to be critical parts of the overall Bible translation tasks.
“We do very much believe in and continue to work towards written translations of the full Bible that are understandable, in natural language, and accessible to the local people. However, the enterprise of Bible translation is just as much, if not more, about the development of people than it is about the development of resources.
“This changes our approach a good bit. We focus on the use of Scripture resources as soon as possible rather than waiting for the text to be perfect. In fact, it is only in using these resources that we often find whether or not our translations are effective. We have also seen that expatriate involvement in the translation task, although often necessary, is often subsidiary to the ongoing ownership of the translation task by local people, particularly the local church. We put the majority of our effort into equipping and empowering these local believers to carry on the translation task. Our task then becomes more of a support role for the local Bible translators.”
PATHWAY: What are some tangible ways you’ve seen the need for Bible translation work?
STRINGER: “In one area of the world, … a minority people group that lived in the mountains of this country was oppressed by the majority people group. When they heard that another minority people group had received a translation into their language, the small, highly-persecuted church there sent a delegation to walk several days to a recognized church in the city to ask if there was any way that they might also have the Bible translated into their language.
“We have begun Bible storying projects alongside partners from this church in the city who are doing a traditional translation project. In our last meeting with these local translators, they said with tears in their eyes, ‘We now know that God cares about us. He speaks our language, and we can even speak to him in our language.’ None of these believers spoke the national language well at all. … When they proclaimed they could speak to God in their language, it dawned on me that, up until that point, they believed they had to pray in the national language if God were to understand them – a language many of them could barely understand, much less speak. They could now pray!”